Arnab Goswami's arrest: Will the saga lead to introspection in the media?

By ordering Arnab Goswami's arrest, the Shiv Sena led government of Maharashtra has managed to do that which he had claimed Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was incapable of. The Establishment that facilitated the rise of Goswami has done little more than made noises about championing the freedom of expression while Goswami cools his heels in a makeshift jail.

Journalists are divided over Goswami. Even as many disapprove of Goswami’s blatantly ideological journalism, they wonder whether they should defend him against harassment by the state, as is being demanded on social media and closed media forums by those who share his ideology.

Clearly the reopening of the two year old case is an instrument for demonstrating state power. If the Sena believes that Goswami has not been sufficiently subdued then this is unlikely to be the end of his woes. In Maharashtra, both street power and state power belong to the Shiv Sena. No johnny-come-lately to Mumbai could be allowed to mock its authority, leave alone undermine it.

Arnab Goswami himself is the product of larger fundamental shifts in the Indian media landscape. While political parties had always “embedded” journalists in media organisations, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) transformed the media. Media houses and media practitioners began to align themselves along the political and ideological divide which led to the rise of the BJP to power at the Centre. While there was always a dominant consensus on government policy in mainstream media, it was now called upon to demonstrate its loyalty with unparalleled obsequiousness.

Media houses complied for many reasons. A sustained flow of government advertisements was not the only reason. Several media groups rely on conclaves, leadership summits and similar revenue-generating events whose success crucially depends on the participation of top ministers of the government.  Their refusal to attend would lead to direct revenue losses. Correlative evidence suggests that the threat of boycott or denial of access in the last six years has led to sacking of editors and appointment of pliable ones.

Editorial stances have changed with opinions pages opening up to party and government propagandists, acceding to publish mailed-in interviews with top government leaders,  and even “interviews” without by-lines, suggesting that they have not been produced by any in-house journalist. The more propagandist a media platform became the greater its political clout.

Arnab Goswami

Journalists and editors who displayed their access to the corridors of power tended to move up within their organisations as they were deployed by media owners to facilitate the grant of state honours (a seat in the Upper House or inclusion in the national honours list) or to expand their other businesses (power generation, coal mining for example). They also “freelanced” for corporates doing business with the government, including for arms dealers.

Of the establishment journalists, Goswami was clearly one of the most successful, transiting from editor to editor-owner in a short period of time. He could have continued to thrive as others have but for the federal nature of the Indian polity – being close to the Central establishment he took on its provincial adversary.

Uddhav Thackeray has shown that those who facilitated Goswami’s brand of propagandist journalism ultimately could not protect him from public humiliation. What he has done to Goswami in Maharashtra is routinely done by other state governments with differing magnitudes of vindictiveness. Sleepless nights are predicted for many others in the days to come. Those who have taken benefits from the government will be forced to continue to deliver. But the more obsequious the media becomes to the current establishment, the more it is likely to be open to political vendetta when the political dispensation changes.

By making Goswami a cause celebre the BJP may hope to turn accusations of intolerance against the Modi government against its critics. However, its own record is pretty dismal. Anyone who is publicly critical of it has been rounded up and charged with sedition or under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Most recently, for example,  in Uttar Pradesh, Siddique Kappan of a Malayalam news portal was arrested under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for trying to go to Hathras to report on a rape case and journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested twice in two years for “seditious” tweets that mocked the chief minister; in Gujarat Dhaval Patel, editor of a news portal was arrested for a report suggesting that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was likely to  be changed; in Haryana the Manoharlal Khattar government arrested journalist Naresh Khohal for violation of Covid-19 norms and creating “nuisance” after he reported stone throwing in his neighbourhood to the police’; in Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested for a social media post on a complaint by the wife of a BJP politician (he had earlier been  arrested in 2018 for social media post critical of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, Chief Minister N Biren Singh and Prime Minister Modi); and in Assam journalist Rajib Sarma was arrested for investigating the illegal activities of a district forest officer including cattle smuggling. The record of the former BJP government in Chhattisgarh of persecuting journalists is legendary.

During the Modi regime, India slipped two places in the World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters without Borders – from 140 in 2013 to 142 in last year. Given its image of intolerance of dissent, it is doubtful whether the BJP government will gain anything against its adversaries by standing up for Goswami.

The bigger lesson in this saga is for the Indian media to recognise the dangers of becoming the handmaiden of the Establishment. Increasingly those governing in Delhi are not in power in the states. Throwing its lot with one might lead to trouble with the other. This is a prospect that the media has invited upon itself by jettisoning its lodestars of neutrality and fairness.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel